EVOLUTIONARY GOVERNANCE: Part I: Principles

A new model of nonprofit leadership for uncertain times.

A wooden walkway winding through ferns and trees in a lush green forest.
A wooden walkway winding through ferns and trees in a lush green forest.

By Vanessa LeBourdais, Kate Sutherland, Valerie Nishi, Jeff Vander Clute and Jonathan Varkul of DreamRider Productions Society.

“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence — it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”

Peter Drucker

How can nonprofits meet the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) era that we live in? How can they be governed to support the emergence of the new and different solutions so desperately needed? How can we move beyond old forms of governance that no longer serve?

DreamRider Productions is an environmental education media nonprofit based in Vancouver, BC; we design transformational experiences that inspire children to become changemakers for life. We’ve grown in a few short years from a local, relatively unknown children’s theatre company, to an internationally-recognized innovator in digital educational media, reaching over a million kids in 150+ cities in Canada, the US and India.

One day, we started focusing our playful, emergent design expertise on the issue of our governance and began an experiment. Now, some seven years later, we are happy to report here on our success and to offer other organizations new inspiration and approaches to expand their capacity.

At a time when systems are breaking open and showing the need for reinvention, including or perhaps even most especially governance, this approach offers an alternate pathway away from outdated systems of colonial origins and structural legacies. Our hope is that you take this work, experiment with it, iterate, and let us know what you discover.

Nonprofit governance is rife with problems.

According to governance expert Howard Jang (VP Arts and Leadership at the Banff Centre), organizational failures most often arise out of issues between Boards and Executive Directors (EDs). Problems of governance, then, are at the core of non-profit sector failures. Sector service organizations like Nonprofit AF, Vantage Point and Ashoka Changemakers are investigating new forms of governance because a new way forward is so desperately needed.

We believe that DreamRider has developed such a model, and we share our learnings here in the hope that our experience can help bring about a new, healthy and joyful way of governance for the non-profit sector.

We call our model “Evolutionary Governance”.

Using this model:

DreamRider’s governance model, leadership practice, organizational structure and systems are all interconnected and based on the same principles of presence, listening, emergence and love, including an anti-racist and decolonizing orientation.

Burned by the Traditional Model of Governance

In today’s world, most non-profits are run by professional staff with deep expertise in both the big-picture context/demands of their organization’s mission and the pressures and requirements of the day-to-day work. Board members often volunteer at best a few hours a month and are expected to approve major decisions of the organization and direct the ED.

This model can mean that the people who know the most about the organization — the ED and senior staff — are subject to the control of people who know little. This dynamic leads to many problems, including conflict between Board and staff, abuse of power, lack of diversity, EDs of colour leaving the sector, etc.

A white flower bud, with green leaves, sprouting up through cracking black pavement.
A white flower bud, with green leaves, sprouting up through cracking black pavement.

How the DreamRider evolutionary governance model emerged

In 2015, after some years practicing the traditional model of governance, a conflict arose between Vanessa (the ED) and DreamRider’s Board, which ultimately resulted in the resignation of all but one of the members. The essence of the conflict was disagreement about how decisions should be made: the Board wanted to make changes that ran counter to Vanessa’s intuitive approach. The Board said that intuition was not a viable leadership tool for nonprofits; while Vanessa honoured the importance of data and measurement, she also knew that her intuition was essential and at the core of DreamRider’s success.

Vanessa was determined to find a new approach to governance. Based on two years of research into governance models, she decided that the best way forward was a minimalist and experimental approach: to simply meet the core legal requirements for a nonprofit Board: as an officer in the Charities Directorate at the Canada Revenue Agency told her, “to hold one meeting a year and have three members.” By letting go of anything in the governance model that wasn’t a fundamental legal requirement, Vanessa hoped that, at the very least, the Board would retain its fiduciary responsibility, but wouldn’t be an obstacle to her work.

Board member Bryn Sadownik stayed on for the transition, and Jeff Vander Clute and Jonathan Varkul joined to start the new experiment in governance. Erika Harrison joined soon after and played a critical role in helping us stay aligned with legal requirements during the experimentation phase. Vanessa said to them, “Please do the minimum legal requirements, and take any other action only if it is needed. In other words, be willing to do nothing, if no action is required. Let everything else be emergent.”

Jeff said, “Well, how about we meet every month, for whatever you’re going ‘argh’ about?”

Thus began a three-year experiment in Board governance, largely and intuitively led by Vanessa. It was some time before we even knew how to describe what we were doing, or what to call it. Now, we feel that the principles and practices of our work are critically needed at this time of great change when the old models are no longer serving so many organizations.

“Complex systems have a process of emergence…Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.”

— Nick Obolensky

Acknowledging Precedents

The emerging practices of the DreamRider Board are part of a wider cultural shift that has important precedents. We do not claim to be the first. Longstanding practices in Indigenous communities the world over align significantly with the ideas presented below and we know we benefit from their leadership in more ways than we are cognisant of. Other precedents and co-arising thought leadership include Theory U, Adaptive Leadership, Servant Leadership, Generative Dialogue and many more. Vanessa notes that adrienne maree brown’s seminal book, Emergent Strategygave a name to how I work”.

The authors of this paper in no way claim that these ideas are ours alone; rather it is an attempt to show how we are applying these emergent principles to nonprofit governance, which has typically been operating out of methods born from the sector’s colonial past. We see our praxis as part of a larger emergent pathway forward, away from these colonial systems, and towards something more life-giving, inclusive and joyful.

THREE CORE PRINCIPLES OF EVOLUTIONARY GOVERNANCE:

We began with three principles, which are practiced by the Board and the ED, and are encouraged in the staff as well:

1 To trust in emergence: to be willing to do nothing if nothing is necessary (as opposed to acting out of an intellectualized idea of what ‘ought’ to be done). This practice involves:

2 To hold regular space for whatever Vanessa was going “argh” about.

3 Tend to the beingness of the organization and the field.

Tending to the field of DreamRider tends to the field of our own work. We all benefit from this work personally, and all the Board members feel this interrelatedness between the work with DreamRider and their own professional development and expansion.

Remote governance: The ideas in this article work without being face to face. Everything in this practice has been developed over zoom. Indeed, for all the directors, our time together online is often the highlight of our week. And being virtual also enables us to source directors from anywhere in the world, and to be agile and adaptive to the dynamic schedules of Board members (and staff!)

“We all bask in what we get from DreamRider — I am profoundly renewed and uplifted by being in the field with the Board” — Kate Sutherland, Chair.

Six kids and two adults, dressed in colourful superhero costumes, are posing like heroes at the side of a wooden pier.
Six kids and two adults, dressed in colourful superhero costumes, are posing like heroes at the side of a wooden pier.
Characters from DreamRider’s Planet Protector Academy program.

These principles have stood the test of time. During these same years, DreamRider has grown from being a relatively unknown little theatre company in the Vancouver BC area, to a recognized leader in transformational education and social change through digital technology in over 150 cities across Canada, the US and India.

All of this change and transformation of systems has been joyful, and the Board and the team have stayed in alignment and understanding.

To read about the Core Practices of Evolutionary Governance please read Part II.

Written by

Recognized by Ashoka Changemakers as a global leader in digital environmental education, Vanessa is a producer, director, writer and anti-racist activist.

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